Pete Buttigieg’s dropout shows that marginalization is not subjective

"The main lesson I took from Buttigieg’s campaign is proof that experiencing one kind of marginalization doesn’t automatically make someone any better at understanding others."

Tori Johnsson

During this primary election cycle, criticisms were levied at former South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg across the political spectrum, taking aim at his comparatively meager governing experience, his questionable relationship with the South Bend police and his very moderate Democratic political leanings.

It was quite refreshing. At least they weren’t slamming him for being gay.

For a glorious month or two, Buttigieg’s trailblazing campaign made him the first openly gay presidential candidate with a competitive shot at the nomination. His public speaking skills were polished. He was a clean-cut and respectable figure with a winning personality. He went to Harvard, served in the Navy Reserves and was deployed to Afghanistan.

As for policy, Buttigieg positioned himself as a moderate figure in the Democratic party. He didn’t support Medicare for All, free college or cutting military spending, like some of his fellow candidates farther left. Instead, he proposed less drastic changes or no change at all – non-mandatory Medicare, debt-free college wherein many would still have to pay and maintaining the military budget, according to a Politico summary of his positions.

Buttigieg definitely put major effort into his campaign and appealed to a decent chunk of voters, as he won a majority of Iowa delegates in the nation’s first primary. He had the chance to go big or go home. He unfortunately went home.

But Buttigieg’s political record and electability would have been just as iffy for a heterosexual politician. Buttigieg was caught up in a scandal in which he fired a black police chief for improperly recording officers who made racist comments about him, as reported by the New York Times. According to Vox, black and Hispanic communities were also left behind by South Bend’s economic revitalization, which Buttigieg made a centerpiece of his campaign. This all added up to Buttigieg polling abysmally among black and Hispanic voters, especially in battleground states – and offering his fellow candidates free ammunition for future debates.

Buttigieg’s effort proves that running for president as a gay man can be done, or at least attempted. It is especially attainable for someone who was born in a relative position of privilege.

I’m not disparaging any of Buttigieg’s successes. Regardless of his personal background, pretty much everything he accomplished took significant talent, tenacity and ambition. But circumstances seemed to leave him with a large blind spot surrounding the interests of people of color in his community. The main lesson I took from Buttigieg’s campaign is proof that experiencing one kind of marginalization doesn’t automatically make someone any better at understanding others.

There should be appreciation for the political ground Mayor Pete broke; liking his policies is not a requirement for that. This candidacy will encourage other LGBTQ+ candidates to run for major public office. There are two queer governors serving right now – Kate Brown of Oregon and Jared Polis of Colorado – as well as several members of Congress and many local officials.

In this day and age, the identity politics of being a gay candidate helped Mayor Pete stand out in this race, whether he wanted them to or not. The United States will eventually see more gay people, with wider ranges of life experience and policy expertise, taking the lead. And when “being gay” doesn’t rank alongside normal policy positions as a reason to support or dislike a candidate, politics and civil society will be more inclusive of everyone who dreams of running for office.